The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel

The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel Quotes and Analysis

I looked upon the night,

I listened to the rain.

It was a stormy scene:

Thunder, lightning,

A multitude of ghosts among the trees

"Occupation" (24)

This quote comes from the first collection of poetry, A Time to Change. In this poem, the speaker describes the act of observing his own environment and recording it. The poem itself is an act of extended description and a window onto the writing process itself. It is also known for being one of Ezekiel's most beautiful early poems. It is filled with rich imagery that invokes all the senses as the speaker takes on the task of describing the scene he is witnessing.

I do not want the yogi's concentration,

I do not want the perfect charity

Of saints nor the tyrant's endless power.

I want a human balance humanly

Acquired, fruitful in the common hour.

This, Elizabeth, is my creation,

Stated in the terms of poetry,

I offer it to you in dedication.

"Dedication" (40)

These rhyming lines come from "Dedication," which is the first poem from Ezekiel's second collection of poetry, Sixty Poems. In this poem, the speaker reveals himself to be the poet, as he relates his struggle with finding perfect and "balanced" language for his poetry. The last three lines emphasize a shift in Sixty Poems from Ezekiel's first collection, as his voice emerges more vibrantly through a turn towards simplicity and directness.

She lies, the female image

On the lonely pillow, in the single room,

Incessantly reborn, rolling the senses

Down through several circles to the solid ice;

And empty palaces of fancy rise for her,

This harlot of a dream.

“The Female Image” from Sixty Poems, p 68

This poem emphasizes the theme of sexuality, which is recurrent throughout Ezekiel’s works. As it does so, the speaker plays with subjectivity, perspective, and power. By reducing the woman who is being described in this poem to an inanimate object, nothing more than a “female image,” the poem can seem to be an act of objectification, teetering towards misogyny. However, Ezekiel shows awareness of this dangerous venture, and makes sure to communicate that this image he is speaking of is merely an “empty palace” and “a dream.” The speaker’s gaze, which takes in this process of objectification, is separate from the gaze that objectifies the woman in the first place. In this way, the speaker condemns getting lost in one’s own perspective and subjectivity, as it results in a disconnection from reality, which is emphasized through an intrinsic misunderstanding of those around you. He also uses this poem as a means to emphasize how wrong it is to reduce a woman to a simple “image,” since it wreaks havoc on those who perpetuate the harmful gaze: “On his cheeks / the hunger and the shame, / while the inner courtyards of his youth / are besieged” (68).

Beneath his daily strategy,

Reflected in his suffering face,

I see his dim identity,

A small, deserted, holy place

“Portrait” from The Third, p 87

This passage is the last stanza of the first poem of Ezekiel’s third collection of poems, The Third. The work as a whole centers on questions of identity, as the poet searches for a true identity in himself and others that must be nurtured away from the public eye. Self-knowledge is a huge theme throughout Ezekiel’s work, as the poet struggles to reconcile the effect of his environment (particularly the city) and his own self-knowledge and acceptance. In this poem, the “Portrait” of this person is confined to his daily activities, those that are not thought about fully and instead are put on auto-repeat. These activities impede upon the creativity and joy of the individual, who must stifle his independence in order to ease into the crowd.

At night the body gives itself, by day

It pretends … pausing before mirrors

Or in the street, awkwardly ignoring

Its constant agitation, until a smile

Or shaken breasts restore its memory

“Paean” from The Third, p 92

In this passage, the speaker personifies the body and sees it as separate from a person’s identity. This kind of intense focus on the body allows for poetic insights that ring true for how a body might feel as it goes throughout its day. The title of the poem, “Paean,” means song of praise or triumph, and usually is a poem that expresses enthusiastic celebration. The depressing images of what a body suffers through every day in this poem contrast with the meaning of its title, as bodies are generally seen as less worthy of lofty or ‘fancy’ language or poetic forms. Ezekiel’s focus on the body extends throughout his entire career, but his meditations are most poignant in The Third as Ezekiel examines what it means to have an identity that is hidden from most of the world.

Searching for the point of it,

The meaning and the mood, one learns

Over and over again the same thing:

That women, trees, tables, waves and birds,

Buildings, stones, steamrollers,

Cats and clocks

Are here to be enjoyed.

“Conclusion” from The Third, p 96

This passage includes some of the most quoted lines from Ezekiel’s Collected Works. Several scholars see this moment, found in the middle of Ezekiel’s third book of poems, The Third, as representative of a reconciliation between two opposing forces that Ezekiel had been poetically grappling with for a decade: life and death. In this moment, the speaker reaches the awareness that existence is temporary, which means bodily pleasure must be included in what it means to live a good life. This passage suggests that harmony and joy can be found even with the chaos of existence if one focuses their efforts on the present moment: “The true business of living is seeing, touching, kissing, / The epic of walking in the street and loving on the bed” (97). Norman Ross Edgington notes in his article “Nissim Ezekiel’s Vision of Life and Death” that all of these processes, when brought together, can bring about positive results for the individual: “The process of individuation can be successful only through integrating the physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and psychological aspects of existence.”

Myself examined frightens me.

It is no accident I am what I am.

I saw the image being formed,

I saw it carnal in the arms of love

(Crushed, compromised and consummated).

I saw it making vows

With hidden weakness in the bone,

Unstable at nightfall and at noon.

“What Frightens Me,” from The Third, p 106

This passage reflects a tension that stretches throughout The Third in which the passage of time awakens fear within the speaker. In these lines, the speaker is “frightened” by what he sees in himself, because when he looks closely at his ‘true self’ he finds someone who followed remote operations without revealing his true emotions at the time. The ‘true self’ and the mask that is available to the public have little distinction between them, which troubles the speaker, who fears that he does not truly know who he is. The theme of self-knowledge is incredibly important in these works, and marks Ezekiel among the modernists of his time who were also trying to pinpoint identity and subjectivity in the face of an overpowering collective.

I’m not afraid of being

misunderstood. When I talk

because I must, the landscape

overflows with figures who want

to listen. United by our ignorance

we struggle, and the words

materialize, begin to matter.

Is this surprising, unusual?

Not at all. Language

is our conspicuous gift

“Talking,” from Poems Written in 1974, p 171

In this passage, Ezekiel demonstrates his maturity as a poet and his growth from his early collections of poetry, A Time to Change and Sixty Poems. In his first two collections, Ezekiel often laments being unable to find the specific language that he needs. For example, in “Word for the Wind,” he laments being unable to find a word that perfectly describes the wind that hasn’t been already invented. In contrast, this older Ezekiel knows that he has the words he needs and has found confidence in his voice. Ezekiel’s maturation is partly due to experience and partly due to his lack of fear of “being misunderstood.” This poem represents the voice of an older poet who has an established community of support and admiration surrounding him. Feeling secure in his language allows him to take risks, and ultimately will allow him to write some of his most famous poems ever written—“Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.,” “Minority Poem,” and “Very Indian Poems in Indian English.”

Nothing changes here: not even

the cliché that nothing changes here.

Today I journeyed down a slow stream,

the punt—a primaeval specimen,

replica of the prototype

going back a thousand

or a hundred thousand years.

The coconut palms that line the banks

seem as far as the stars.

“Rural Suite,” from Hymns in Darkness, p 198

These beautiful lines come from a poem about witnessing the poverty of India while visiting a rural town. Before this passage, the poem exposes how religious merchants, who are actually rich farmers, go into towns and collect even more wealth from the superstitious villagers who believe they “may well be God testing his people” (197). The speaker expresses frustration at the stagnancy he sees in his own country, which he sees reflected in the natural world. He sees the legacy of the nature around him and traces it back in his mind thousands and thousands of years. He looks up at the trees and they are as impressive as the night sky. The imagery in this stanza is simple yet powerful—it speaks to a tradition and collective knowledge that has been passed on through generations and generations. It is one of the few moments throughout Collected Poems where the speaker expresses a true tenderness and admiration for the particularly Indian landscape around him.


Straighten yourself up

to your full height

and find humility.

It’s better there

than lower down.

“Blessings,” from “Poems 1983-1988,” p. 281

This is a section of “Blessings,” one of the poems Ezekiel wrote in the later days of his career. In this section, the speaker urges readers to avoid making themselves smaller on purpose and to not take on the disguise of those who are seen as “lesser” than them. Instead, the speaker urges the reader to “find humility” in the position they are in and to recognize that they are better off than those who are “lower down.” This reflects Ezekiel's own positionality when writing about his society—he writes from a place of privilege and never denies the fact and yet is able to call out injustice through his humility. His poems are never in the voice of those who are seen as lesser than he is. Instead, he satirizes voices that come from his own social class and makes them humorously oblivious.